Civics in Aurora and America, a reply to Rev. Peter Morales

This is not the post I had planned for today. I was in the process of editing a piece on Technological Unemployment and Income Disparity. I really planned not to comment on last week’s tragedy; the pointless political debate that we all knew would follow might never have touched my sector of the web. I was not going to just repeat myself to an audience that isn’t listening, and almost no one really is. Everyone already had their minds made up Thursday night as to how they would react. They knew after the shooting of Congressperson Gabrielle Giffords last year. Or after the 2008, politically motivated mass murder at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The fact is that most people with strong opinions aren’t listening. They only really examine the evidence that supports their side. They don”t care that studies are done, or that facts are collected. If they did, the answers would be a lot clearer.

But, Rev. Peter Morales, president of the UUA, had to make a statement, because everyone who wants to be news worthy has to make a statement in times like this. He then reposted part of it on his official blog, speaking of the reactions it garnered. He asks, “What is behind this apparent madness?”

Below is my reply, expanded for my own blog, because I can and because I was inspired to a little stronger language by another UU who commented on something else entirely.

The root of the problem is simple and obvious to me. We can’t have a discussion about gun control for the same reason we can’t really talk about single-payer health care or reasonable tax rates and the closing of loopholes. We can’t look at Europe, and how well these things work there because, we have a different culture.

Rev. Morales mentions, “Our culture contains a belief that violence is necessary and that it somehow can save us.”

The glorification of violence did not start with Americans, though we have brought it to the peak of what I hope the “mainstream” can bare. Ultraviolent horror and action films are always the fan favorites, but they rest comfortably on a build up that goes back to Shakespeare and beyond. Heroes have always been cunning, always been problem solvers, and always been ready to fight and win. Beowulf, The Maccabees, Odysseus, all the way back to Gilgamesh; these tales contain graphic descriptions of supposed heroes in terrible acts of violence. They were meant to inspire warriors and common men alike, as tales of dedication and sacrifice.

The difference is, in part, that our stories often put the hero at odds with authority. We worship the rebel and the vigilante, rather than the soldier or the king. Batman doing what the police cannot. Iron-man, standing up to the government and keeping his technology for himself. John McClane, a police officer always on the edge of being fired by his superiors before his unorthodox methods save the day. Our heroes often stand against the system, calling it corrupt or ineffectual. We never see courts releasing Batman’s villains because of rights violations and terrible chain of evidence.

We glorify the individual with our violence. We tell people that you have to be armed and ready to stand against authority. They hear the NRA tell them that tyrants are coming to take their guns and make them slaves. We give up real safety and social order for the illusion that the individual can stand on his own against the world. Or, at least, that he might need to fight off a horde of zombies any day now.

This is the root of our problem in the US. The rabid individualism and the false sense that each man can carve out an empire with his own hands. It has lead us further and further from friendship with our neighbors and civility with our communities. We must admit that no one builds a business, much less an empire, without the help of others. Until we do, we cannot hope to change the violence, the poverty, the dehumanization of the poor, the undocumented, the mentally ill, and in some all-to-common situations, everyone in a shopping center or movie theater.

When the President of the United States is being scorned for pointing out that this nation was built by communities and shared sacrifice, we have a problem. When Big Government isn’t allowed to help you see a doctor, because that is socialism, but can tell that doctor what kinds of treatments he can offer, even writing him a medically useless script he must read, where is the consistency of philosophy? When people want to go back to the State’s Rights arguments over gun control, abortion, gambling (But not Drugs, for heaven’s sake!), we return to the solidarity, civility, and effectiveness that lead to the civil war.

We have to take control of the destiny of our society. We have to take control of our government. We have to reestablish the sense of civics and civility that allowed us to build this nation. Yes, that means extending the internal idea of what it means to be an American to those of different colors and faiths and even languages. It also means that we need to work harder to incorporate, rather than insulating  minorities, whatever that word means in your communities. Neither the Blacks nor the Hispanics are trying to take over America from the White folk. They are simply trying to be Americans in the ways that America allows. Until we stop seeing “the other” in our neighbor, we cannot be one people. Until we are one people, we cannot take back control of our government and start using it to do the things that we want done. Until we are able to feel ownership of our nation, our communities, and our neighborhoods again, we cannot end the renewed cycle of rabid individualism that has lead us down this path.

In short, as Unitarian Universalist, professor, and MSNBC host Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry said last week, filling in for Rachel Maddow on the evening of the Aurora shooting:

“It is understandable why, in the wake of random, terrifying acts of violence we may want to scoop up our families and fall to our knees in prayers. It makes sense why we may want to do so behind locked doors and drawn curtains that shut out the suddenly scary and unpredictable people around us.But that is the impulse we must resist by consciously cultivating our civic faith. If the experiment of self-government is going to survive, we must be willing to trust one another, even when trust feels foolish.”

4 Responses

  1. Mr. Holmes probably suffered from a Mental Illness. An oragnic disorder of the brain and its chemistry, rather than a cultural disorder of society. To use his illness and its tragic outcome to critique culture and policy not especially helpful from my view.

    • His illness is a symptom. The lack of medical care, or even the lack of attention shown to his change in behavior is symptomatic of the problem. The lack of civility and concern for one another is what I was really getting at in this post. I didn’t actually state my views on gun control laws directly. That wasn’t the point of my post, at all, but of course it is what a “gun rights” advocate will draw out of any discussion in which gun laws are mentioned, because, as I stated in the post, the only narrative you can be aware of is the one that supports your already steadfast beliefs.
      Since you made it the topic, though:

      There is ALWAYS an excuse not to talk about gun control, or any other issue that American culture is clearly on the wrong side of. The truth is, that every time a gun is fired illegally is an excellent time to ask why civilians are allowed to carry them.

      Every Single Time.

      If he couldn’t have bought thousands of rounds of ammunition over the internet, it might just have slowed him down. If he hadn’t been able to buy an automatic weapon, that sure could have saved a few lives.

      There is no wrong time to talk about why this issue is killing our children, young adults, police officers, and, really, any human gunned down in public or private. There is no point at which I will stop thinking that this is a horrible tragedy, and that concealed carry laws in Colorado didn’t stop it, but maybe a ban on automatic weapons could have lessened the death toll.

      Of course you don’t want to talk about it when a mentally ill person goes on a shooting spree. Which shooting spree was committed by a sane person?

      The real issue is that you don’t want people talking about it while they are rightly afraid of guns doing exactly what guns have been designed and refined to do: allow one person to kill another quickly, easily, at a distance. If people talk about guns while the memory of what guns are meant for is fresh in their mind, it is harder to make them irrationally think that guns are the solution instead of being part of the problem.

  2. I think both you and Peter missed the real opportunity to change the conversation. This incident exposed THEOLOGICAL issues that are being covered over in the muck and mire of bad political talk. Until religious people actually talk about VALUES and then politics, the bad political talk will continue to be bad.

    • I don’t doubt that there are many, many, theological issues that could be brought up after something like this. I welcome you to mention some of them. I don;t think that my discussion missed them, though, so much as it covered them is a very different light than what you seem to want to see.

      I spoke of morality and responsibility. if you need a theological frame, I asked if I am my brother’s keeper, and broadly, to whom do we belong.

      My talk was about values. I talk of the value of democracy and the responsibility of elected officials to their constituents. I talk of the responsibility we have to make the world a better place for future generations.

      I invite you to ask about other issues. I am not a theologian, or minister, or even really a lay leader with training. I am a UU who is passionate about my faith, and how it inspires me to make the world better for everyone. I welcome you to talk about your values and theology, where it is relevant to the post on which it is a comment.

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